Improving Cocoa Productivity through Integrated Soil Fertility Management Practices

Author Selom Aku Sika Akande

Communication Officer (CocoaSoils Program)
International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA)
Photo by CocoaSoils

Cocoa plantations in West Africa are sometimes not as productive as expected, yielding low income for farmers. To compensate and improve their livelihoods, some farmers have expanded their farms into forests. Among other factors, poor soil fertility has contributed to a decline in productivity and, although cocoa production is an essential source of livelihood for millions of farmers, the lack of knowledge on good crop nutrition and proper management of cocoa trees cannot be overemphasized.

The CocoaSoils Program (a Norwegian Government-NORAD funded initiative), a public-private consortium led by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Wageningen University and Research (WUR), has been created in 2018 to address this issue.  CocoaSoils benefits from engagement from the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF); Cocoa Research Institutes of Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria; international research centers (including the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture – CIAT, the World Agroforestry Centre – ICRAF, the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Center – UNEP-WCMC); and some cocoa and fertilizer companies convened through the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) across West Africa. The program aims to deploy an Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) approach that embraces an integrated system approach to cocoa intensification while combining improved planting materials, canopy cover management and pest/disease control with targeted fertilizer application to enhance sustainability and avoid deforestation. This is complemented by (re)-use of locally available (organic) nutrient sources and appropriate inter-cropping.

To make appropriate ISFM recommendations for farmers, it is imperative to have a good understanding of the roles of the different soil nutrients to the cocoa trees and yield. This knowledge is sparsely available, and therefore the partners of the CocoaSoils program are setting up ‘Core and Satellite Research for Development’ trials to help provide site specific ISFM/fertilizer recommendations across West Africa. The Core trials are long-term trials of at least two hectares, where fertilizers will be applied in different quantities and combinations, and responses in yield will be carefully measured. In addition to the Core Trials, smaller trials (Satellite Trials) will be set up in farmers’ fields to test different fertilizer combinations and shade interactions to examine the effects on yield under field conditions.

Photo by CocoaSoils

The results from these two types of trials will inform recommendations that will be delivered to farmers through a Partnership for Delivery mechanism that utilizes existing service delivery channels by both public and private sector partners to achieve better yields and improve sustainability of cocoa production. This should help prevent expansion of cocoa cultivation into forested areas. The program currently has eight confirmed trials in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria: The Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG); Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN); Centre National de Recherche Agronomique (CNRA) of Côte d’Ivoire; Institut de Recherche Agricole pour le Développement in Cameroon. Some private chocolate manufacturing companies are actively participating in these trials. Discussions are ongoing on the opportunity to conduct similar trials in Ecuador, Brazil and Indonesia.

CocoaSoils envisions that, after five years, it will have developed:

  • ISFM recommendations to be integrated into extension messages for cocoa intensification
  • A deeper understanding of the cocoa tree’s nutritional requirement.

An immediate consequence should be less incentive for farmers to expand cocoa farmlands into forested areas. By developing and disseminating better knowledge of soil management techniques, CocoaSoils is a strategic backbone of the fight against cocoa-related deforestation in West Africa.